Back to work: Can your employer force you to return to the office?

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Boris Johnson addressed the nation today, revealing the Government’s next steps to returning to “normality” after months of restrictions as coronavirus swept through the UK. The Prime Minister announced the scrapping of warnings to avoid public transport, the opening of leisure centres and the return to work from August 1.

There will be pilots to reopen sports stadiums, wedding receptions for up to 30 people are permitted from August and an extra £3billion of funding has been granted to the NHS.

Mr Johnson said it would be up to employers to discuss with their workers as to whether it would be safe to return to work from August.

He added: “It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November, at the earliest, possibly in time for Christmas.”

However, Mr Johnson said during his Downing Street press conference: “It is not for government to decide how employers should run their companies and whether they want their workforces in the office or not – that is for companies.”

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Can your employer force you to return to the office?

The Prime Minister said that from next month, provided so-called Covid-secure measures are adhered to, employers “should be encouraging people to get back to work where that is right for that employee”.

He said: “We’re going to give employers more discretion and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely”.

Employers need to take steps to ensure their workplaces are safe for workers to return to, with a list of measures to adhere to.

These measures include but are not limited to

  • Making sure the one meter plus rule of social distancing can be observed
  • Introducing one-way systems to minimise contact
  • Frequent cleaning of objects and communal areas
  • In shops, storing returned items for 72 hours before placing them back on the sales floor
  • Table service only in indoor pubs and restaurants
  • Venues expected to collect customers’ contact details for the NHS Test and Trace system

Face coverings will not be made mandatory in office spaces, but are mandatory on public transport now and in shops from July 24.

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If these measures are not abided by, employees have a right not to attend if there is reasonable belief there is a serious or imminent threat to their safety.

They can then lodge a grievance to express their concerns with the working environment.

Laura Kearsley, partner in Nelsons’ expert employment law team told Express.co.uk: “The government is urging employers and employees to discuss concerns they might have and approaches to ensuring that workplaces are safe. 

“The government has issued extensive guidance for employers to ensure that workplaces are ‘Covid-19 secure’ and this includes completing a risk assessment.

“Employees should offer suggestions to their employer if they think there are other measures that could be taken to protect the workforce.

“We recommend trying to maintain an open dialogue so employees can get reassurance that their safety is being taken seriously.

“Ultimately, if you do not attend work because of safety concerns, your employer could treat your absence as unauthorised and follow its disciplinary process.

“Employees do have legal rights not to be dismissed for raising health and safety claims but in the current climate, it would be preferable to try everything to resolve the situation without resorting to litigation, which could take many months.”

Employers have a legal obligation to ensure their staff are safe when at work.

Part of the safety measures include staggered start and finish times so employees can avoid rush hour where possible.

Employees may also be encouraged to find alternative modes of travel, like walking, driving or cycling, to avoid public transport.

Jayne Harrison, Head of Employment Law at Richard Nelson LLP told Express.co.uk: “If an employer insists that their employees should return to the office, those who do not oblige may face disciplinary action from their employer.

“However, the first priority of employers in this instance should be the health and wellbeing of their staff, so forcing employees to return to work is not something organisations should be considering engaging in.

“Employees should speak to their manager or HR department if they feel their employer is not following the guidelines.

“According to government advice, employees who are dissatisfied with the social distancing measures their employer has introduced should report their concerns to their local authority.

“It is essential for employers to ensure their employees are comfortable voicing their concerns and feelings regarding their return to work.”

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